The old stone dining room at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, 12 miles inland from Big Sur, was filled to capacity and busy with conversation. The moment Edward Espe Brown entered, draped in the robes of a Zen priest, the quiet chitchat stopped. Author of vegetarian classics such as The Tassajara Bread Book, Tassajara Cooking and co-author (with Deborah Madison) of The Greens Cookbook, Ed was about to give an evening lecture, one of the three I would hear while participating in his workshop, "Cooking as a Spiritual Practice."
I had gone to Tassajara hoping to overcome my performance anxiety in the kitchen which, for years, has made every dinner party, every entertaining occasion, something to fear and dread rather than enjoy. In his workshop, Ed concentrated on the very basics. We tasted salt. We tasted pepper. We sharpened knives. We meditated.
At Tassajara, snuggled deep into the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains, there were no carbonated beverages, no meat, no junk food. We ate beautifully prepared vegetarian meals. We thought about food at its most elemental in our attempt to appreciate more deeply the joy and pleasure it can give.
Although Ed is highly regarded as a chef, it seemed at Tassajara he was more respected for his knowledge of dharma than of food. The room remained quiet as he settled into his chair, adjusted his robes and pulled the microphone close. I didn't expect instantaneous enlightenment from Ed's lecture but was hoping for something thought-provoking and profound. After what seemed like a very long time, he finally said, "I really don't have much to say this evening," and chuckled to himself.
The room grew quiet and solemnity had re-established itself when Ed reached down and began fidgeting with something in his bag. Although I couldn't see what it was, the crinkly sound was unmistakable. Ed had a bag of potato chips.
"Tonight we're going to perform the ceremony of eating just one chip," he announced.
Something, however, was already amiss. Someone had gotten into Ed's nine-ounce bag of Lay's, and he wasn't sure if there would be enough chips for the 100 or so people crowded in the room.
That problem appeared to be solved when several closely shorn Zen students raised their hands and asked the master what to do if they didn't want to eat even one chip. "Then you will celebrate the ceremony of not eating one chip," Ed answered. "In Zen," he noted, "the eating of one potato chip and the not eating of one potato chip are kind of the same thing."
When the bag finally came our way, the Zen student next to me rummaged around the bottom and found the tiniest shard, which he placed on the end of his finger as though he and the chip were auditioning for an Intel ad. My other neighbor dropped his chip. It broke in two. He looked at it, mortified. This was, after all, the ceremony of eating one chip and not two.
Ed instructed us how to approach our chips. Foremost was concentration. We were to "collect your mind. Attune your mind to the chip. Pay attention to the chip."
We were to use all our senses, our fingers, our eyes as well as our taste buds. He reminded us to be aware of our ears because "there will be some crunching going on." And we were to be mindful, meaning that we needed to be fully aware of what we were about to do.
Usually it is only foods that we don't care to eat or are repelled by that we give such close attention. I'm sure that I had never before been mindful of even one of the thousands of chips I have eaten. I took a good long look at my chip.
It was shaped like a girl's tongue caught in mid-giggle, a cute squiggle with a thin corona of gold running around its blond edge. I smelled it, and my nose filled with the familiar scent of grease and starch. I ran my tongue over its rough surface and sensed its salty effervescence. There seemed to be a lot of un-Zen like giggling going on as people inspected their own chips.
When we were finally told to eat our chips, there was a crunch more than worthy of one of Jay Leno's old Doritos television ads that used to shake the television screen. After digestion had begun, Ed asked people how the experience had been for them.
Some commented on the salty aftertaste. One person said just holding the single chip and waiting to eat it had made him very nervous about the whole enterprise. Others noted how the fingers and the mouth worked so well together. Several people were still working on the residue caught between their teeth. The conscientious objectors said they were surprised by the loudness of the crunch. A lone dissenter didn't quite get the point of the exercise, commenting, "But chips are meant to be eaten quickly and absentmindedly."
Ed told us that chips are perfect for what they are but because, like so many things in life, we take them for granted, we don't have a sense of them - no matter how many we have eaten. The whole notion, he explained, was to take the time, to have a careful awareness of whatever we are doing, or eating, or cooking, and not assume that we already know all that there is to know. Not even about the simple, guilty pleasure of a single potato chip.
After carefully observing a chip for the first time and fully experiencing its salty, greasy, pulpy "Buddha nature," Ed told us he was able to walk away from potato chips for several years.
"But now," he said, "I'm thinking they're pretty good again."
A version of this story first appeared in the October 26, 1997 edition of the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle Magazine.